Whether your preference is Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Pinterest, social media – in one form or another – is everywhere. In November 2016, 69% of adults in the United States reported to be using at least one social media platform; this number has jumped by 15% in just the past five years (Social Media Fact Sheet, 2016).
Social media’s negative influence on mental health is fairly well established. A recent review found that higher use of social networking sites, and particularly engagement in “photo-related activities” (such as posting and sharing photos on Facebook), was associated with greater body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. For adolescent girls, time spent on Facebook appears directly related to internalizing the idea that thin is ideals, body checking, and being driven by a desire for thinness.
This paints a grim picture. However, with social media being so prevalent, many of us are wondering if there are ways for people with eating disorders (currently or in the past) or those with disordered eating to use the technology and the connectivity it promotes, constructively. For example, sites like proud2bme.org and recoverywarriors.com are online forums for people to share body positive messages, stories of recovery, and advice for healthy lifestyles. As part of the recovery process, some individuals with eating disorders create public profiles through sites like Instagram to post about meal plans, doctors’ visits, and urges to engage in disordered behaviors.
My initial reaction to learning about the social media “recovery culture” was an appreciation of its potential advantages. Utilizing social media in this way seemed like great way to gain accountability to and support from others through a difficult recovery process while increasing awareness of and compassion for the complexity of these disorders, and recovery from them.
In one of our recent research groups on the unit – a weekly forum for discussion between our research team and patients participating in research as they receive treatment in our inpatient program – we spent some time talking the role social media can play in recovery. Reactions to the concept varied, and signaled that this is a complicated topic which could benefit from more systematic research.
Anecdotal Impressions of Social Media’s Impact on Recovery
- Following recovery or support groups can fill your feed with inspirational quotes and positive messages; even if this type of content does not deeply resonate with you, it can be helpful in taking up space on your page so you aren’t exposed to other, more negative posts.
- Social media allows people who develop close relationships while in treatment to remain connected, to support one another through next steps in recovery, and to help catch lapses.
- When following certain recovery groups or body positive sites, the keywords that appear on your feed may unintentionally generate triggering advertisements on your page, such as quick, “safe,” weight loss methods. These ads can be easy to click on and difficult to ignore.
- TimeHop and related features – designed to take you on a trip down memory lane – can draw your attention to photos of yourself that may be difficult to view, depending on where you are in your recovery. The only way that you can get rid of these pictures is by deleting them one by one.
- Social media makes it easy to keep unhealthy food obsessions alive. For example, popular recipe videos, for some people, may promote continued preoccupation with food, eating and calories. This is a modern-day equivalent to the hoarding of recipes and cookbooks experienced by starved individuals in the Keys semi-starvation study.
- You can never be sure of what you will find on someone else’s social media account. In searching for helpful content, you may open yourself up to material that will interfere with your recovery.
Other elements of the social media for recovery experience may be bittersweet. For example, inspirational stories posted by people in recovery illustrate various ways that life can improve and grow past the eating disorder. However, these stories sometimes act as a painful means of comparison to where an individual is today in his or her own recovery story.
Is Social Media Helping or Hurting Your Mental Health?
These 3 questions can help you thoughtfully evaluate whether social media is working for or against your recovery:
- Am I interacting with social media more than with real life? If you’re online more than offline, and especially if this is influencing your desire or ability to develop meaningful real-world relationships and interests, this may be a sign that it’s time for a technology time-out.
- Does the content that I follow lend itself easily to making unhealthy comparisons? Do you tend to follow fitness models, lifestyle bloggers, or restrictive “foodies?” Are you quick to forget that social media presents us all with biased, unrealistic accounts? If so, then you might be setting yourself up for comparisons that could cause your self-esteem to suffer, and your recovery to falter.
- How do I feel when I use social media? Pay attention to the feeling you get when you’re online; your feelings may provide all the intel you need about how to proceed. How often does social media leave you feeling connected, hopeful, inspired, or energized? How often do you wind up feeling isolated, anxious, or down on yourself? How long do these feelings last? Do they lead to an increase or decrease in eating disordered behaviors?
Be honest with yourself about why you are using social media, and if it’s more helpful to you or to your disorder.